In “On Display,” the latest in Heidi Latsky Dance's ongoing Gimp Project, a series featuring disabled and non-disabled dancers, it's about being seen.
The site-specific “On Display,” which opens on Sunday, Nov. 15 at New York University's Skirball Center for the Performing Arts along with an excerpt from Latsky's 2013 solo work “Solo Countersolo” and the New York premiere of new work “Somewhere,” is what Latsky calls a movement installation, and functions as a live art exhibition and fashion show. Viewers wander through the performance, perhaps pausing and taking photographs, and then move on, instead of sitting for the duration of the program. The format allows viewers to focus on dancers of their choosing, and also permits performers to stare back if they want.
“They're being empowered to show who they are when they want to and how they want to, but people hide,” said choreographer and artistic director Heidi Latsky.
The idea for the piece came from a comment Latsky received years ago when she presented a video trailer for the Gimp Project, which featured a dancer with one arm, at a creative retreat. A museum curator approached her after the presentation, and told her that he often finds sculptures with missing limbs, but when he watched her video, he recoiled, and felt ashamed of his response.
“When he said that to me I started thinking…what would it be like if I made a sculpture garden or a sculpture court of real people who are missing limbs?” Latsky said.
“On Display” features disabled and non-disabled dancers, and what Latsky calls “unexpected bodies,” along with the familiar, lithe figures of professional dancers. Rachel Handler, one of the newest performers, is an amputee who's without her lower leg. She performs portions of the show sitting on the floor, and at other times stands on one leg. Kimberly Olstad is visibly pregnant, and her clothing exposes her belly.
“We're so quick to judge people just by what they look like,” Latsky said. “But then when you see them move, especially an unexpected body, there's a beauty to that.”
The piece's unconventional music features robotic spoken text of physical human descriptions that sound like automated recordings. The attributes, like “engorged hands,” “sad brown eyes” and “bulging crotch,” were pulled from actual observations made by writer and company dancer Jerron Herman, who spent a month covertly jotting down descriptions of people he saw on the subway. Herman, who started dancing four years ago, has cerebral palsy, which affects the left side of his body. Watching others was an “inverse experience,” he said, as he's often aware of people looking at him. The exercise challenged him, especially when he realized he didn't always have the vocabulary to describe people with disabilities.
“I was going between P.C. and truth, what should I say versus this is what I see,” he said.
Now, as a performer in the show, when he hears the reading of the text, he can picture the faces of the people on the train.
Though Latsky has worked with disabled dancers since 2006, the piece is a departure for her company. Much of her choreography features vigorous, technical movement. But in “On Display,” the 28 performers, dressed in costumes by Brooklyn fashion designer Anna Kathleen Little, engage in slow, languid movements, or morphing (during a recent rehearsal Latsky urged dancers to make even smaller, slower shifts) and sometimes remain still. At other points, their movements are sudden and frenetic as they strike poses, plaster on smiles and open and close their eyes.
“This was a very hard piece to choreograph because I didn't want it to look like choreography—I wanted them to be exposed,” said Latsky, 57, a petite woman with curly blond hair. “I wanted to find ways to bring them out…the slower they move, the more you see them”
The performers are also watching.
“We have the agency to connect with our viewer,” said Herman. “The one that's come to view us is also on display. I think that's where my anxiety about being watched melts away. I'm showing myself.”